Sunday, November 27, 2011

Let's Occupy Broadway: Samuel L. Jackson, David Henry Hwang, Leigh Silverman and other Broadway panelists reveal the radicality of original works and new writers breaking out this fall season in New York

NEW YORK CITY:  The New York press has described my recent Broadway panel discussion "Anatomy of Breakout" as "illustrious," "lively," "all-star," and "rockin'."  With the Toronto Star and the India Times publishing articles after the fact, the symposium event made an international impact as well.

Samuel L. Jackson and Randy Gener
In a couple of emails, a former Village Voice colleague and an academic felt moved to state "Wonderful job, Randy. Really terrific" and "Wonderful event."  And the New York actor Adam Couperthwaite posted on my Facebook wall: "Inspiring panel tonight at Fordham. Thank you for putting together such a great group."

On the NYC Arts LinkedIn group, a colleague commented, "Fantastic line-up and topic. Congratulations on pulling this talk and talent together, and making it so accessible to seniors and students in particular with that $5 ticket price."

The good word is definitely out.  Yet the person whose opinion mattered the most was that of my partner-in-crime, Matthew Maguire, the Obie Award–winning playwright and the chair of Fordham University Theatre Program.  Without the support of Maguire and the Fordham University Theatre Program, it would have been impossible to pull off this panel discussion.  Held on Sunday November 13,  Anatomy of a Breakout investigated just what it takes for a play or a musical, as well as an individual performance, to break through and become a critical and/or popular success. Leslie (Hoban) Blake, a writer for Theatremania, co-moderated the event with me.

David Henry Hwang, Matthew Maguire and Randy Gener
Immediately after the event, Maguire posted on his Facebook wall: "Attended an inspiring Drama Desk panel at Fordham Theatre tonight, gathered by Randy Gener who brought together the movers & shakers of Chinglish, Mountaintop, Lysistrata Jones & Venus in Fur, some of the most unlikely Broadway shows ever. One of the coolest things he [Samuel L. Jackson] said was his advice to young actors. Come to New York because in New York you find community. Randy, great work on getting him on the panel!"

What exactly was everyone so enthused about?

To my mind, the reason this panel made such a huge impression went far beyond star power. No doubt, the presences of actor Samuel L. Jackson, playwright David Henry Hwang, director Leigh Silverman, director Kenny Leon and playwright Douglas Carter Beane contributed greatly to the exciting buzz that the event drew prior to the event (see below the second set of links to articles announcing it).

What really brought home the message is the critical mass of New York productions represented in the panel, not to mention the other productions which were invoked or named during the discussion itself.

"Anatomy of a Breakout" panel at Fordham University
What did these productions have in common? In Broadway terms, they were all new and original American works.

During past seasons, New York's commercial stages had predominantly been swamped with revivals of classic works, imports from London, and star-laden productions by already famous names.  Because of the millions of dollars associated with producing a show in New York (and not just on Broadway), it was never a surprise that most producers (including non-profit producers) settle for already known entities. Either a play or musical is already proven to be a hit (the Broadway revival of Anything Goes or the runaway hit Chicago are good examples) —  or the shows are direct imports from the U.K., with most of its cast intact (see the example of Private Lives this season or War Horse which continues to sell out at Lincoln Center).

Frequently the shows are stage versions of movies (the mass popularity of cinema being another indication that the material is not unknown). Moreover, Broadway producers invest more on works by Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams.

What's different and remarkable about this fall 2011 season is that New York stages are overrun by new works by relatively less famous names.  Playwright David Henry Hwang is one of our country's top playwrights but from a commercial standpoint he is still better known for M. Butterfly, his first Broadway hit from the 20th century.  So the critical and popular success of his sensational new play Chinglish, starring Jennifer Lim and staged by Leigh Silverman, is worth celebrating, especially if one realizes that more than half of the play is performed in Mandarin Chinese and with supertitles.  When I suggested in the panel that Chinglish is more than just an Asian-American drama — that it is, at the core, an international play, even Samuel L. Jackson had to retort, with slight bewilderment, that a foreign producer would have to find an actor who, like Lim, spoke Mandarin.  Lim might be a rare actor in Broadway terms, but outside of the USA, Mandarin Chinese is actually the most widely spoken language in the world, including some parts of Africa.  
With David Ives and Leslie (Hoban) Blake

David Ives is another master American playwright. He is, however, not exactly a household name yet. Theater cognoscenti know him more as a translator and adapter of Moliere, Yasmina Reza and other comic dramatists.  His brand name, as evinced by his breakout work All in the Timing, is closely associated with comedy.  The return of Ives's Venus in Fur in a Manhattan Theatre Club production on Broadway is thus notable and surprising, because this original two-hander, a serious work of drama which stars Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, first made a splash last season at Classic Stage Company — and because Ives has largely been considered an intellectual's intellectual.

With Samuel L. Jackson and Kenny Leon
Katori Hall is a writer few had ever heard of until Jackson and Kenny Leon both agreed to take on her play The Mountaintop on Broadway this season.  Add to this the fact that the play's subject, the famed civil rights Dr, Martin Luther King, is a sacred icon.  Any depiction that even remotely characterizes Dr. King in a negative light has immediately met with controversy.  Soon after the play opened, the children of Dr. King appeared on CNN to denounce the play's depiction of their father, even though they had not actually seen the play but only read a copy of the script.

As both Jackson and Leon attest in my panel discussion, The Mountaintop would have never been produced on Broadway this season had it not actually won critical accolades in London last year, including the coveted 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play.

With the cast of Lysistrata Jones
Like Venus in Fur, which began its life Off-Broadway, Lysistrata Jones, a new musical, opened to rave reviews in a Transport Group production in a gym in Greenwich Village.  It will now open on Broadway in December 2011. And, like Venus in Fur, Lysistrata Jones contains echoes of Greek drama.  It plops the battles-of-the-sexes comedy by Aristophanes into the world of high-school basketball.

As unlikely as this collection of productions might be, we can also point to other shows not represented in my panel that had humbler beginnings:  Other Desert Cities, the play by Jon Robin Baitz, began its life Off-Broadway before its current Broadway run.  Lydia Diamond's play about an upper-middle-class African American family, Stick Fly, has moved to Broadway after a long journey in the non-profit world.  And the astonishing Off-Broadway commercial run of Freud's Last Session by Mark St. Germain has similarly reinforced the feeling that something radical is afoot in New York stages this fall.

Director Leigh Silverman confirms the radicality of this feeling by stating that in her opinion, the gathering of these plays — ChinglishMountaintopLysistrata Jones and Venus in Fur — was "groundbreaking" in terms of how amazing it was to see all these new works have aggregated in one fall season.

David Henry Hwang admits that a key aspect of the emergence of these new works rest in the cultivation of relationships over time.  Hwang joked that in the past he had leaped from director to director he felt like "a slut."  When he first met director Leigh Silverman, Hwang said he was not at first sure that she might be the right person for the job.  And then he realized that the questions she had posed him about his play were actually important — that those very questions she raised were the very issues that needed to be explored and examined in rehearsal if the play were to reach to as broad an audience as possible.

"Anatomy of a Breakout" was a ritual event that recognized and acknowledged that as tough as it may be to develop new work, there is definitely an audience out there that is willing to embrace them.  That as financially conservative and artistically parochial the commercial stages might be, new work will out.

As with most stage trends, diehard skeptics will no doubt decry that the critical mass of new works thriving this fall season might simply be a coincidence or simply passing fare.  Who knows what next season will bring, after all?

I would like to go so far as to suggest that because of this panel, the cat is now out of the bag.  Whatever the future may bring, it will now be hard to dismiss this one enterprising fall theatre season, in the midst of the worst economic recession in memory, when so many new and original American works occupied New York's commercial stages, thus encouraging the best in our creative natures and promising a brighter future for theater artists everywhere in New York. —RG

With the creative crew of Chinglish: Hwang, director Leigh Silverman and Jennifer Lim


From Toronto Star

From India Times

From Getty Images
Photos from Anatomy of a Breakout panel for purchasing 

From Wire Image
Photos from Anatomy of a Breakout panel for purchasing 

From the blog Theater Life
Drama Desk panel 

From Asian Connections
Photos: David Henry Hwang, Jennifer Lim, Leigh Silverman, Samuel L. Jackson, Kenny Leon, and more

From Lia Chang Photography
Drama Desk Anatomy of a Breakout Panel 

From the blog Star Sightings
Celebrity Sightings at 2011 Drama Desk and Fordham University Theatre Program panel discussion 


From Critical Mass, the blog of National Book Critics Circle
NBCC Member News: Randy Gener Hosts Samuel L. Jackson, David Henry Hwang, & More

From This Week in New York

From the blog "Reflections in the Light" 
Douglas Carter Beane, Lewis Flinn, David Henry Hwang, David Ives on Drama Desk Panel to Discuss 'Anatomy of a Breakout' 

From Playbill
Douglas Carter Beane, David Henry Hwang, David Ives, Samuel L. Jackson, Kenny Leon Set for Drama Desk Panel Discussion

From BroadwayWorld
Samuel L. Jackson, Douglas Carter Beane et al. Set for Drama Desk/Fordham University Panel

From Theatermania
Douglas Carter Beane, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Lim, et al., Set for November 13

From Broadway's Best Shows
Samuel L. Jackson to Participates in Drama Desk/Fordham University Panel on November 7 

From BroadwayWorld
David Henry Hwang Set for ANATOMY OF A BREAKOUT Discussion, 11/13 

From Fordham University's website
Panel to Discuss Broadway's 2011 Breakout Season

poster for the event

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